Not a metaphor. Actually happening. Still.
FOR YEARS, we have been saying this, to the point where we even bored ourselves: Mummery is 100% backward bullshit, an annual celebration of the white man and his famous burden that has no place in the modern, better iteration of this city. Sired in an age where the powers that be reasoned that minstrelsy practiced en masse was a good enough bread and circus to remind the underclass that at least there was a hierarchy to these things, the Philadelphia New Year’s Day Parade metastasized into a Tradition. And though the mantle of that tradition suggests that, over the years, the parade has become a more genteel, family-oriented thing, scratch the surface this year or any other and you can quickly find the poisonous, poisonous heart of the Mummers.
And just when everyone was getting bored of The Argument, it just so happened that yesterday, the Mummers got back to their roots, so to speak. The Ferko String Band placed fifth in the String Band competition with a routine that swapped out blackface for redface (complete with a rendition of “Mammy” and visual echos of Sambo), and the Venetian Club shat out some thing that played fast and loose with anything to do with “Indians.” And as I write this, late on New Year’s Day’s night, I’m sure Two Street is ablaze with n-bombs, f-bombs, and enough piss to fill up the Linc to make a hoagie and pretzel soup that would keep us warm all winter.
Oh don’t be such a sourpuss, you say, it’s such a unique part of our identity as a city! Or my personal favorite, which is when people talk about how authentic it all is. To which I say: Well, yeah, the worst things within us usually are. Which is why it takes Herculean efforts to stamp them out. But as a city, we’ve done nothing but encourage this nasty little survivor of an age we kid ourselves into thinking is bygone.
Over recent years, like everything else around here, the New Year’s Day Parade — and with it, the entire enterprise of mummery — has felt a financial crunch. It’s been on the ropes financially and in terms of cultural relevance. As a new city continues to sprout up around us on the ashes of the old one, it gets harder each year to look at the Mummers and say, yes, that represents me. I’ve lived here my entire life and I still can’t do it. It should be dead by now. It should have faded away (or at least to Northeast Philly or South Jersey where, let’s be honest, it belongs) decades ago. And yet, no politician or city official would dare even the appearance of pulling the plug on this thing. After all, let us not forget: The dumb fucking mooks in red face are the same Philly Democratic Machine Union Goons working the polls each and every Election Day. Hell, some of them even live here.
That the social and economic force that is the Transplantadelphians haven’t been more vocal about What We Talk About When We Talk About The Mummers is a disappointment, too. Instead, we’ve got an awful lot of people obsessed with “authenticity” who believe that you can treat this shit like an art project and change the tenor of the parade; alongside that is an even more distressing phenomenon — the sociocultural tourism (or, let’s call it what it is, “slumming”) that now attends every Two Street celebration. Yuck. Many otherwise presumably “enlightened” folks among us have turned themselves into living parsers of the argument that goes, “But heyyyyyy, they’re not all like this… see?”
Of course they’re not — they being the many Mummers out there, I’m sure, who also cringed a lot yesterday — but history is not written by the people who stand on the sidelines and say, “Oh, dear, I am not very comfortable with that.” History, unfortunately, is mostly written by knuckle-dragging racist, homophobic, cowardly pieces of shit who do whatever the fuck they want until, finally, someone says no.
Bearing that in mind, the Mummers gave the people of Philadelphia a wonderful gift yesterday: Something to finally, unequivocally, say no to. When something is as wrapped up in cheesesteak wrapper and sold to us, year in and year out, as Us, as our own civic identity, it’s easy to say, “Well, okay, I suppose, I suppose there’s no harm in letting it ride and fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.” But what went down yesterday was no joke. It was ugly. It was a heart of darkness many of us thought we’d mostly passed through. And it does not represent who we are. Not anymore, and not to whatever extent it ever did. Again: It does not represent who we are.
So let us go then, you and I, howling into this new year. Too often, we Philadelphians can coddle ourselves with the cold comfort of knowing that bigotry is largely owned by the hick provinces of Pennsyltucky and places to the south of it that are even more unmentionable. But let’s not kid ourselves. It lives here among us, only our redneck is your otherwise kind-of-tolerable hoagiemouth neighbor. And lest you just think his prejudice is isolated, don’t be so sure: You should hear what he says about you when you’re not in the room.
– Joey Sweeney
[Photo courtesy a bemused reader]